Criminological Theories

Crime is a very complex phenomenon that has fascinated psychologists for centuries.  In an attempt to explain why individuals follow a deviant and corrupted path experts refer to various theories that can be intertwined and provide insight into the criminal mind.  Theorists believe criminal activity can be linked to one’s genetics, social ties or upbringing, and our deep subconscious.  This paper will review the biological, sociological, and psychological theories of crime causation and describe how it affects human behavior and actions.

A common assumption of biological theories of crime, are that genetics and physical traits play a leading role in one initiating deviant behavior.  In the earlier years of the biological theories, it was suggested that criminal traits were hereditary and passed down from parent to child.  In 1876 Lombroso, an Italian physician claimed criminals are born and were identified with certain physical traits or abnormalities, such as large ears, flattened nose, odd shaped skull, and insensitivity to pain. (Ford, 2013) Individuals with these traits could not resist bad behavior that lead to criminal activity.  In the early 1900’s Sheldon, an American psychologist expanded on Lombroso’s study and concluded that the size and shape of the human body can lead one to deviance.  Specifically, an individual whom is muscular and athletic or portrays an hourglass figure.  There is also the theory that suggests criminals have an extra Y chromosome, giving them an XYY chromosome makeup that possess them to commit crimes. In an attempt to study the relationship between hereditary and crime further, psychologists conducted studies of children that were adopted at a very young age that had no contact with their biological parents and the correlation of criminal activity.  The study included children with criminal biological parents and non-criminal biological parents.  Schulsinger conducted this study in the early 70’s and concluded that only 3.9% of the children with criminal biological parents displayed criminal traits and tendencies, compared to 1.4% of children that had non-criminal biological parents.  (Walters & White, 1989)  In 2007,

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian citizen, who was living in Italy admitted to murder of another citizen.  After in depth testing it was suggested that abnormalities of the brain in which five genes were hosted that contained violent tendencies that led Bayout to murder.  (Feresin, 2009)  The biological theories have come under much scrutiny, as they hold no predictive qualities, because many individuals with attributes that are considered criminal traits do not actually become criminals in life.

The sociological theories justify criminal behavior while focusing primarily on social influences, such as culture, peers, environment, and upbringing when considering the cause of deviant and criminal acts.  Robert Agnew, a social theorist suggested individuals act out in response to a social frustration, commonly known as the strain theory.  They may engage in bad behavior to reduce the stress they are experiencing, such as commit a robbery to ease the stress of financial difficulty or become violent in order to work through suffered harassment.    Individuals also, learn to engage in criminal acts from their social network and peer influences.  Through social learning the crime becomes a desirable act and is justifiable based on the beliefs of the group. Young people are easily exposed to criminal behavior through gang initiations and other close knit groups that have learned no boundaries or respect for the law.  A juvenile may also engage in criminal acts based on observations from a group, media, or even a video game.  Young people are more likely to engage in criminal acts if they are likely to receive a reinforcement, such as social status, financial reward, or increased pleasure.  Negative reinforcement, such as a threat or punishment is also a driven factor that leads to deviant behavior.  In most cases the individual is seeking out approval or attention in some manner from peers, family, or teachers.

Sociological theories also allude that an individual that has been the victim or witness to crimes including, but not limited to neglect, child abuse, alcoholism, or selling drugs are more likely the criminal behavior at some point in their life.  The ability to decipher what is right or wrong has been tainted and the criminal life becomes a norm within the culture and society of the individual.  (Byrne, 2011)  Albert Bandura conducted a social learning study, famously known as the Bobo doll experiment.  He monitored the response of children as the observed a video of a model aggressively interacting with the same doll.  In the video the model hit the doll, beat it with a hammer, kicked it, and shouted erroneous phrases. (Lee, 2013) When the children were invited to the play room without receiving further instruction they began to reenact the same aggressive behavior towards the doll that was observed in the video.  This study supports observational and social learning, which contributes to bad behavior being learned and accepted by the individual.  As goes the old saying, “garbage in, garbage out.”  Ted Bundy, an American serial killer is a prime example for biological theory of crime causation.  As a young child he clung to his grandfather, a man who was a bigot with strong racist beliefs, abused and beat his wife, tortured cats, and was aggressive towards Bundy’s aunt as a young girl.  Ted’s grandfather acted out with violent rage.   Ted Bundy exhibited similar traits at a very young age in life and it was believed that the violent tendencies were learned from his grandfather.  He was disconnected from a parent child bond with his mother as he grew up thinking his mom was his sister.  He was anti-social and suffered a lack of control of his rage.  (Bio, 2013)  Psychological theories of crime causation emphasize the developments from childhood to adulthood of personality traits and defects that contribute to criminal acts. In order to explain criminal behavior, analysts have connected crime to personality traits and have reverted to labeling.  We look for certain characteristics in one’s personality, such as anti-social defects and associate those characteristics with deviance or psychotic behavior.  The level of intelligence can also play a role in the criminal mind, but is considered a negative correlation and is not a reliable factor.  Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed violent behavior was “the product of “unconscious” forces operating within a person’s mind.” (Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 2010)  Freud claimed that all human beings are born with natural instincts with the desire to satisfy their need for food, shelter, and pleasure.  These instincts are what drive us and are house deep within our unconscious.  It is because of these natural instincts to survive and meet our needs that he believes all humans have criminal tendencies.  Humans will do what they must to survive, without thinking of the altercations.  Freud’s theory suggests there are three levels to our unconscious and they are grouped as the ID, Ego and Superego.  Our Id is the biological, inherited, and unconscious source for our sexual drives and irrational impulses.  The Ego is influenced by non-biological extremities both social and family related that has brought on the basic developmental functions.    A child that has not had the opportunity to socialize starting at a young age may develop a personality disturbance which will cause him or her to have strong antisocial impulses.  They have trouble connecting with other kids their age and the awkwardness and feeling of being unaccepted directs the child to act out in negative ways that are not deemed a social norm or lawful.  Parental involvement is also considered to impact the development of a child mentally and socially.  A child that is disconnected from a parent may have trouble connecting with the world around them and leave them with no regard for the law; where as a child that has been nurtured and loved will grow up to be a caring and respectful citizen.  In a recent case reported by ABA Journal (Hansen, 2006), Dennis Rader, a well-respected man and a deacon at his church is also a well-known serial killer in Wichita Kansas in which he killed ten people.  His serial killer desires were deeply imbedded unconsciously and were triggered when he was denied a law enforcement officer position.  His aggression and extreme impulsive desires controlled his unconscious and forced him into a sadistic and heinous world.

Theorists are driven to understand the causation of crime in individuals.  Having a better understanding and the ability to justify the deviant desires will give criminal justice professional the opportunity to rehabilitate criminals and reduce crime.  The behavioral, social, and psychological theories attempt to explain individual causes, but do not provide concrete explanations and are a source of blame for one’s choices and actions.


Ford M.D., R. (2013, September 16). Biological and Psychological Theories of Crime. Retrieved June 19, 2015, from

Walters, G., & White, T. (1989, November 3). HEREDITY AND CRIME: BAD GENES OR BAD RESEARCH. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from

Byrne. (2011, October 1). Sociological Theories of Sociological Theories of Crime Causation. Retrieved June 23, 2015, from

Lee, D. (2013, June 16). Bobo Doll. Retrieved June 19, 2015, from

Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews. (2010, April 27). Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

Hansen, M. (2006, April 21). How the Cops Caught BTK. Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

Ted Bundy. (2013). Retrieved June 24, 2015, from

Feresin, E. (2009, October 30). Lighter sentence for murderer with ‘bad genes’ Retrieved June 20, 2015, from

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